Part of our job as animal trainers and consultants is to support people on their way to become skilled trainers. Working with trainers of all levels and animals of various species for more than 15 years has allowed us to observe the development of positive reinforcement-based training, especially in Europe. While it is such a privilege to have more opportunities to expand our knowledge about the science behind training on an extremely high level than a couple of years ago, the possibilities of improving hands-on skills under professional supervision are still limited.
While it’s necessary to learn about training concepts in theory, it is at least as important to practice your actual skills to become a master of your trade. Participants of our seminars especially appreciate the balance of necessary basic knowledge and thorough analysis of their training skills in a safe environment, where they can feel comfortable enough to make mistakes during training and learn from them. Because nobody is perfect!
Avoid confusion – keep it simple!
When we work with very knowledgeable students who have not had a lot of hands-on experience yet, we often notice confusion during training sessions. Sometimes trainers think it is necessary to follow all written guidelines of animal training, but forget that scientific findings often originate from laboratory settings. It is more than acceptable to listen to the animal you are working with and to relax rules within a training session, if this is necessary to meet the individual’s needs.
We suggest that trainers should explore more advanced training concepts, such as concept training or experimenting with schedules of reinforcement, only after understanding basic science and its correct application.
Got the science! What comes next?
Besides understanding the science behind training there are some other key components for training sessions and for becoming a responsible trainer:
- Putting animal welfare first
- Taking responsibility for the animal’s behavior
- Following the LIMA protocol
- Empowering the animal
- Creativity, flexibility and courage to think outside the box
- Self-reflection and openness to criticism
- Experience and intuition
Lab vs. Real life
At the AnimalTrainingCenter we recently acquired two skittish pigeons who were signed off to leave quarantine a couple of weeks ago. We decided that crating would be the least stressful option for moving them into the new exhibit. The assigned intern has an extensive scientific behavior modification background. She created a thorough training plan according to her knowledge about how to train an animal. The results however, were not as satisfying as she was hoping for. After observing her training sessions and evaluating them, we adjusted the training to a more practical approach.
We found that although the shaping plan was very accurate and well thought through, focus on the priorities got lost. The goal was to simply move the pigeons into their new enclosure to give them more space and a better environment to live in. For us, it was extremely important to move the animals as fast as possible to increase their welfare.
What happened? Instead of actually working towards moving them, she got lost in focusing on many details. She desensitized the animals to eat from her hand and strengthened every step to a point where it was very reliable. While this can be a good strategy in other situations, it delayed their move into a new exhibit.
We reminded ourselves that the first priority was to get them into the crate and to be able to shut the door.
After just a couple of days training following the new protocol, the pigeons repeatedly walked into the crate without hesitation.
She could close the door and carry them to the new enclosure, where she was ready to go back to her original plan. In the next training session, she wanted to start from scratch again. Our intern was extremely thrilled to see both pigeons entering the crate again even before she could start the formal training session.
Achieving all these practical skills can be a long and challenging journey. However, we strongly suggest focusing part of your educational investment into gaining these competences by attending hands-on workshops learning from the best. A good balance between scientific knowledge and hands-on skills is necessary to reach your full training potential. Work really hard and do not limit yourself!
Would you like to become a better trainer?
At the AnimalTrainingCenter in Austria we teach hands-on workshops for various levels of experience, where you get the chance to train more than 20 species, including dogs, chickens, and many other domestic and exotic animals for various behaviors. Our trainers are specialized in dog training and behavior modification, assistance and therapy dog training, husbandry training with pets and animals in zoological settings, behaviour consultations at zoos, training of ambassador animals as well as training animals for movies.
Don’t complain – train!
Here is a list of workshops we recommend to attend:
- Animal training workshops in English language at the AnimalTrainingCenter, Austria:
- Chicken Training Experience November 7thand 8th, 2020
- Domestic and Exotic Animal Training & Behavior Management Workshop November 8thto 12th, 2020
- Contemporary Animal Training and Management, with Dr. Susan Friedman and Steve Martin from Natural Encounters Inc., Florida
- All animal training workshops at “The Ranch” with Ken Ramirez, Karen Pryor National Training Center, Washington
Authors: Anna Oblasser-Mirtl, AnimalTrainingCenter Austria & Barbara Glatz, AnimalTrainingCenter UK